(Interview performed in September 2016 for Exospace company, a satellite images visualization startup)
– First of all, could you quickly introduce yourself? How and when did you catch the space bug?
I was born at the dawn of the space age, and as an adolescent watched as great missions of lunar exploration thundered out of Florida every two months for much of 1969 through 1972. It was an amazing time to be alive, and watch as these adventures were transmitted to our living rooms. We were certain that within a decade humans would set foot on Mars. It hasn’t turned out that way, but I’ve been passionate about space exploration ever since.
I studied science in college, but decided that my skill sets were better tuned to communication than research, and after grad school refocused from an earlier career in advertising to documentary television. In 2005 I wrote my first book, “Destination Moon” for Smithsonian, and nine more titles have followed. My current books, being released this year and next, are “Mars: Making Contact,” about the exploration of the red planet, “Blueprint for a Battlestar,” describing the science of sci-fi, “Amazing Stories of the Space Age,” a collection of wild but true ideas for space missions from 1939 through the 1980s, and “Space 2.0,” a look at the exciting developments that are leading us in to a new space age—and I’ve come full circle regarding space exploration and development. It is again a great time to be alive and watch all these wondrous programs, both robotic and human, come together.
– NASA, with SpaceX seems to be moving to Mars a little bit quicker than expected a few years ago. ESA recently proposed the Moon Village concept. According to you, will we see first an inhabited outpost on the Moon, or Mars?
NASA is moving at a very careful and measured pace, trying to develop the technologies and hardware to enable a program that will eventually allow them to make the first human voyages to Mars. This plan is based on continued funding at current levels, which of course could change, and assumes no major political shifts in priorities. At this point, both the SLS and Orion are behind schedule and there are concerns from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) that NASA will have trouble hitting their marks—but it’s too early to say with certainty. The Asteroid Redirect Mission may or may not move ahead as planned—that’s for the next presidential administration to decide. There are good arguments for developing this technology, and equally solid reasons to forge ahead to other destinations. Surface operations on the moon are currently not on NASA’s agenda (as confirmed by statements by NASA officials just last week), but would be possible in partnership with other nations or commercial entities.
Looking at this from a global perspective, I would expect to see some type of robotic operations on the moon, possibly followed by a long-term human presence, before human landings on Mars. I would love to see ESA, possibly in concert with Russia and China, consolidate their plans for the moon. NASA has much to offer in terms of experience operating in that environment. With regard to Mars, the real wild card would seem to be Elon Musk and SpaceX. Musk has big plans and the drive to accomplish wonderful things—he has already gone from a man with a dream just a decade ago to a major launch provider and a huge influence in commercial spaceflight. Jeff Bezos has also accomplished much in a short period, though his spaceflight division, Blue Origin, is taking more time to penetrate the marketplace. Most of the private operators are discovering how challenging the spaceflight endeavor truly is, and perhaps we can all appreciate once again what NASA and the Soviet Union achieved in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In sum, I am optimistic about the near-term future of human spaceflight.
– Do you think the upcoming space age will be driven by the private sector, frontier-style, or by governments, colonization-style?
This is the big question. I spoke to Bill Gerstenmaier last week, who is the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations for NASA and well positioned to know the answer. His take is that the human exploration of Mars will be a combined effort between government and private industry from many nations. As I see it, at this point, American industry has a clear edge in commercial space operations, but this will not last—international partners and other operators will join the effort.
If I had a crystal ball, I suspect that it would show frontier-style outposts starting in a decade or a bit more, followed by larger, more permanent efforts within 20-25 years. It’s possible to look back at short trips like Apollo, and the early plans of various organizations, and see surface operations on the moon or Mars taking place within a decade, especially if we can begin to utilize in-situ resources—commodities found in space or on the planet. But any kind of long-term, large-scale settlement of Mars, for example, is, in my opinion, at least a few decades away. I do respect the argument of becoming a multi-planet species, but it’s very expensive, very hard and the environments are hostile. Just the dust on Mars is dangerous if not handled with caution. So we have a lot to learn before heading off in large numbers. There must also be a reason to send people other than scientists to a place like Mars. For the immediate future, geologists, biologists, chemists, engineers and medical professionals will top the ranks. For the rest of us, I suspect it will be decades before there are sufficient resources to support such a journey. The possible exception may be people like Musk (who is, incidentally, a fine engineer), who may be able to head off to deep space once he has developed the technology to travel to and land there.
– NASA has a bigger budget than ESA, but less roadmap stability. According to you, will the first off-world outpost be international, or national?
I hope it will be international. We took our baby steps with the International Space Station, and many nations have partnered with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for robotic exploration. These partnerships have demonstrated that it’s possible to work together to accomplish great things. The question that looms large is primarily political. NASA is currently proscribed from meaningful partnership with China, and has limits placed on any international efforts, due to ITAR restrictions. And those laws are there for a reason—but ITAR must be revisited if we are to truly work together to reach other worlds with a human presence.
As you point out, Europe may have a longer “sightline,” but has trouble devoting the resources required for large-scale human spaceflight. The Russians have incredible amounts of experience, but are chronically underfunded in their efforts. China and India are the new players, and seem to be able to set long-term goals and meet them at greatly reduced cost levels. If we can combine these technical and financial efficiencies with the technical know-how and experience of NASA and Roscomos, our progress could be greatly accelerated. But issues of international political barriers, and, quite frankly, nationalism and pride will have to be addressed before we can proceed in a meaningful fashion.
– Space still sparks interest in the general public but at levels nowhere near what it used to be decades ago. How do you explain that? Is public support a key element for space agencies funding increase?
The space race is the typical benchmark for measuring public interest in space exploration. But it’s worth remembering that by the mid-1960s, there were politicians within the US striving to cut funding for Apollo. Three Apollo lunar missions were cancelled, even though the hardware was built. NASA had well-developed plans for long-term human lunar surface presence, landings on Mars, crewed flights to Venus and more—just amazing ideas—but all were shelved due to lack of funding and, frankly, interest from Congress, the executive branch and the public. I can clearly remember the Apollo 14 mission—once people realized that the mission was going smoothly and there would not be another Apollo13-style emergency, the TV networks began cutting away from their coverage of the moonwalks and to soap operas and reruns of “I Love Lucy” and other period programming. It was awful to see. And for Apollo 15, 16 and 17, the coverage was very spotty—guys on the moon, seen it before, no big deal. I was horrified. But that is public “space fatigue.” The most public interest I’ve seen since the Apollo years was probably the two shuttle accidents, Challenger and Columbia, which is not how we want the public to engage with spaceflight.
In contrast, there was a lot of interest around the landings of Mars Pathfinder in 1997, the MER Mars rovers in 2004, and Curiosity in 2012. Those are all great missions, and JPL has done a wonderful job in engaging the world as they explore Mars. The real question is: what human spaceflight program will do the same? My guess is that we need to offer a sense of place, not just a mission. A rendezvous with an asteroid is a great engineering and science objective, but does not offer a sense of place that will get people excited. Mars, and to a lesser extent, the moon, both offer a destination that will resonate with average people, and that is critical. And at least in the US, where the public’s passions flow, dollars will ultimately follow.
– Last but not least, any colonization effort will probably, at some point, conflict with off-world hygiene regulations (extraterrestrial life protection). What is your stance on this matter? If a robot discovered bacteria on Mars, should we ban forever any colonization effort?
There is a long-running debate on whether or not humans have the right to establish a permanent presence on Mars if some form of life is found there. Both sides of the argument have merit, but in my view, unless that life is classified as what we would consider a potentially sentient species, we should move ahead. The protocols that will be required to protect humans against the harsh Martian environment, along with the powerful radiation that bathes the surface of the planet, will do much to sterilize any invasive Earthly microbial contaminants that are likely to escape into the environment. Other mitigation strategies will be developed long before we set foot on Mars—witness the rigorous sterilization procedures used for the Viking landers in the 1970s, still the gold standard of planetary protection. Barring a major discovery of life forms on the surface of Mars, if we are careful with any sources of liquid water (and they will likely be few and far between), we should be able to safeguard what life may exist there.
Terraforming is an entirely different discussion. By definition, such a project would transform the Martian environment, adapting it for use by humans and probably challenging or destroying any native life forms. This becomes a broader moral conversation, and one that must be engaged in before such efforts can be initiated. But terraforming Mars will, with any foreseeable technologies, be at least a millennia-long process (and probably longer), so we have lots of time to make this determination.
On the subject of extraterrestrials—and I am speaking of intelligent, technically-advanced beings—lots of very smart people think that some form of contact may occur within the next ten to twenty years. If we do find an advanced off-Earth civilization, it is likely to be far, far away from our own solar system. So two-way communication with them would probably be a matter of many decades before we learned much about one another, which allows us to become wiser about how we might deal with such an event—and by then we will be a multi-planet species ourselves. If it happens sooner, and the speed of the conversation can be increased, I hope they give us some much-needed hints about how to move through space faster, and more comfortably and safely, so that we can increase the pace of space exploration exponentially.